How long should you rest between sets to build muscle? Is 60 seconds enough? Is 5 minutes too long? Are shorter rest periods better for weight loss? Let’s find out.
The short and simple answer to the question is 2 minutes. That’s how long you should rest between sets if you want to build muscle, lose fat or get stronger.
The longer answer is a bit more nuanced, so let’s take a look at what the science has to say on the subject.
In days gone by, it was common to recommend short rest intervals between sets (30-60 seconds) for hypertrophy.
The idea behind using short rest intervals revolved around increased levels of metabolic stress and a superior hormonal response to training, neither of which are as important for muscle growth as was once believed.
In fact, research comparing short (60 seconds or less) with longer (2-3 minutes) rest periods generally shows superior gains in both size and strength with the latter [1, 2].
Why do longer rest intervals work better?
As the amount of rest between sets goes down, the accumulation of fatigue goes up. This limits the amount of weight you can lift, and the number of reps you’re able to do.
In other words, without enough rest from one set to the other, you won’t be able to do as many reps. And it’s this reduction in the amount of work you’re able to do which has the knock on effect of reducing the stimulus for growth [3, 4].
However, it’s worth pointing out that most research to compare short and long rest intervals has employed training sessions involving the same number of sets.
Why does that matter?
There’s a link between training volume and muscle growth. The more hard sets you do for a muscle (up to a point, at least), the faster that muscle will grow.
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One of the benefits of using short rather than long rest periods is that you’re able to get through more sets in a given amount of time.
Research shows that using relatively short (60 seconds) rest periods can work just as well as long (3 minutes) rest periods for building muscle, just as long as you do more total sets to make up for the fact that you’re doing fewer reps in each set .
In other words, both short and long rest periods are similarly effective for muscle growth, just as long as your overall training volume is sufficient.
The more effort you put into a set, the longer the rest time should be. That is, a set that’s taken closer to failure will require more recovery time than a set that’s terminated with 2 or 3 reps left in the tank.
Fatigue also accumulates over the course of a training session.
Depending on the exercises you’re doing, you may benefit from longer rest periods slightly longer during each subsequent set of each workout.
That is, the average rest interval between sets will be longer in the final third of your workout than it was in the first.
When you’re training for strength, give yourself 2-5 minutes of rest between sets.
Research shows that resting 2-5 minutes between sets delivers greater gains in maximal strength than rest periods lasting 30-90 seconds, mainly because it allows you to lift heavier weights across multiple sets .
Similarly, higher levels of muscular power have been demonstrated over multiple sets with 3 or 5 minutes versus 60 seconds of rest between sets.
For advanced lifters who are pushing extremely heavy weights, the optimal amount of rest between sets may be even longer, somewhere between 6-10 minutes in certain cases.
Individuals who are pushing very heavy weights and carrying around a large amount of muscle mass will need more rest between sets than beginners who are weaker and smaller.
The more muscle mass that needs to recover, the longer it’ll take for that recovery to take place.
When they’re trying to lose fat, many people will make changes to their training program, switching to high reps and light weights, and shortening the amount of rest they take between each set, all in the hope that doing so will burn more calories and lead to a faster loss of body fat.
Shorter rest periods do allow you to do more work in a given period of time.
That is, a 45-minute workout where you rest for 60 seconds between sets will allow for more work to be done than a 45-minute workout where you rest for 3 minutes between sets.
More work equals more calories burned, which will make a larger contribution to the calorie deficit required for weight loss.
While the theory sounds good, it’s my view that exercise in general, be it cardio or weight training, is overrated as a means of weight loss.
When it comes to losing fat, the food you eat (or rather, that you don’t eat) is a lot more important than what you do in the gym.
If it’s more muscle and less fat that you’re after, I think you’re better off treating your workouts as a way to gain (or even just retain) muscle, and your diet as a way to strip away the fat.
When fat loss is the main goal, the basic structure of your training program should be much the same as it is when you’re trying to add muscle.
Put differently, if what you’ve been doing has worked well for building size and strength, it’s highly likely to work well for maintaining that size and strength when you start dieting.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long should I rest between warm up sets?
The weight you’re using during your first few warm-up sets won’t be heavy enough to create muscle fatigue. Because of that, you don’t need to rest for any longer than it takes to change the weight on the bar. Somewhere in the region of 45 to 60 seconds is plenty.
As the weight on the bar gets heavier, and you get closer to the weight you’ll be using in your work sets, you’ll want to take progressively longer periods of rest between each set.
How long is too long to rest between sets?
For most people, 5 minutes is going to be long enough to recover for your next set.
For advanced lifters doing very heavy compound lifts, longer rest periods in the region of 6-10 minutes may be beneficial, as they allow for plenty of recovery time before the next set. But for everyone else, 5 minutes is plenty.
The main downside with long rest intervals is that your workout will last longer. Depending on the environment you’re training in, you also need to be careful about cooling down. Take too much rest, and you might need to warm-up again.
How long should I rest between heavy sets of squats, leg presses and deadlifts?
Compound lifts that work a large amount of muscle mass, especially those for the lower body like squats, deadlifts and the leg press, typically generate large amounts of cardiometabolic fatigue. You want to rest long enough for that fatigue to dissipate. Somewhere in the region of 3-5 minutes is about right.
Single-joint exercises like curls, pressdowns, lateral raises and so on work a much smaller amount of muscle mass, don’t generate as much fatigue, and won’t require as much rest.
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